DreamWorks Animation was so successful previewing last year's Oscar-nominated Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss in Boots, that they were back again at the DGA in LA last week with this year's lineup: Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (June 7) and Rise of the Guardians (Nov. 21). It's safe to say that after viewing the first 15 minutes or so of footage from both along with their trailers in 3-D that DreamWorks has continues to raise its game.
The Zoosters cut loose in a madcap Monte Carlo on their latest detour from returning home to New York City, and Oscar-winner William Joyce (The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore) has supplied an answer to superhero fatigue with his "guardians of childhood" book series hat's the basis of this ingenious movie premise.
But thanks to refinements in skin surfacing, subsurface scattering, global illumination and particle effects, both films look gorgeous. You have to think that Mari's also had an impact on the vibrant environments. In fact, Monte Carlo hasn't looked this good since Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief. Resembling a Marx Bros. romp, the old gang Alex (Ben Stiller), Marty (Chris Rock), Melman (David Schwimmer) and Gloria (Jada Pinket Smith) are forced into hide out with a rundown circus because baddie Captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand) is after them. She looks like Lucille Ball doing The Matrix. The penguins and monkeys tag along to save their hides. Will they ever get back to Manhattan? After glimpsing this CG Europe, why would they want to?
Indeed, Mad 3's trio of directors -- Tom McGrath, Eric Darnell and Conrad Vernon -- took to the stage and gave us a rundown of the story with stand-up humor that's obviously served them well. But when you consider that Noah Baumbach (Fantastic Mr. Fox) helmed the script, you realize that there's an off-beat sensibility at work beyond the usual franchise shenanigans.
But Rise of the Guardians is DreamWorks' prestige film of 2012 and certainly a strong Oscar contender from what I glimpsed. It's The Avengers of fairy tales, in which a Russian Santa with "Naughty" and "Nice" tattooed on his forearms (Alec Baldwin, no less) teams up with an ornery Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), a Tink-like Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), a silent Sandman (Harpo meets Yoda) and an unwitting Jack Frost (Chris Pine) to fight the Boogeyman (Jude Law): a Venom-like phantom that steals hope from children and replaces it with fear. They've been recruited by the Man in the Moon, the Nick Fury of the story.
The look is striking: imagine Joyce's cool retro vibe mixed with Neil Gaiman's fantastical sense of wonder and then infused with a hyper reality. It's a thrill ride underscored by a sly wit, thanks to screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (Oz: The Great and Powerful, Rabbit Hole).
First-time feature director Peter Ramsey described Santa (aka North) as a "Hell's Angel with a heart of gold"; the Easter Bunny (aka Bunnymund) as "Sundance to Santa's Butch Cassidy"; the Tooth Fairy as " beautiful, shimmering, sort of a half-human, half-hummingbird creature who does exactly what we’ve always known the tooth fairy does -- leave something nice under your pillow in exchange for one of your teeth." However, the Boogeyman (aka Pitch) "hides under your bed at night and brings you scary dreams. He's the last guy you want to believe in." But nobody believes in Jack Frost. "He's the wildcard, the rebel without a cause in our movie. Jack Frost controls all the signs of winter. He uses these powers mostly to have fun. But when he meets the other icons, his true mission begins."
Afterward, Ramsey discussed his impression with me. He's a story artist who not only helmed DreamWorks' Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space TV special but has also worked with David Fincher, Francis Ford Coppola and Spike Jonze. "I provided some notes early on and was so glad to be invited to come aboard," he said. He loved the primal premise and enjoyed working particularly with the charismatic duo of Baldwin and Law. "Alex is so explosive and makes you think that Santa is the most brazenly optimistic guy in the world, and who better than Jude to seductively convince you of your worst fears deep inside you?"
Meanwhile, Bill Damaschke, the new chief creative officer, admitted that the new technology has allowed these stories to be told at this particular time. The glistening snow and golden sand are a marvel to behold in Guardians, as is the character animation. It's much more believable if still sufficiently stylized. As for the influence of Guillermo Del Toro, it's all over the character design of Guardians: "These are characters everybody knows and you must make them fresh and be bold, and he was also critical in telling us to concentrate on the story told today: the audience will catch up and don’t feel like you have to tell that back story."
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. His blog is Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com ), he's a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and he's the author of the upcoming James Bond Unmasked (Spies), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of the iconic superspy from Connery to Craig.